The Baltimore Ravens travel to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots in the playoffs for the third time in four years, and the fourth time in the last six post seasons on Saturday. While the media has taken a 2-1 record and hyped that into the often repeated ‘Ravens have the Patriots number’ in an attempt to hype this game, the fact remains that the Patriots were the best team in the AFC this year and Baltimore backed into the playoffs thanks to a loss by the Chargers in week 17, as they stumbled down the stretch against lesser opponents.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (12-4) ★★★★★
Saturday, January 10 at 4:30 pm ET on NBC
Line: Patriots favored by seven, with an over/under of 48½
Announcing crew: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya
National Radio: Westwood One – Ian Eagle, Boomer Esiason, Tony Boselli
Local Radio: 98.5, The Sports Hub – Bob Socci, Scott Zolak

Pre-game Shows:
Chris Price’s Patriots 4th and Goal – YouTube video
Patriots 4th and Two – podcast available on demand
7:00-9:00: NFL AM – NFL Network
7:30-8:30: The Brady 6 – ESPN
8:30-9:00: NFL Matchup – ESPN2
9:00-10:00: Inside the NFL – NFL Network
9:00-10:00: NFL Live – ESPN
10:00-12:00: NFL Game Day First – NFLN
10:00-12:00: NFL Countdown – ESPN
11:30-12:30: Patriots Game Day – WBZ
12:00-4:30: NFL Game Day Morning – NFLN
1:00-3:00: NHL Hockey, Bruins at Flyers – NESN
2:00-2:30: New England Tailgate – Comcast Sports Net New England
2:30-4:30: Pre Game Live – CSNNE
2:30-4:30: Dunkin’ Donuts Patriots Pre-Game Social – Marc Bertrand, Paul Perillo, Andy Hart
3:30-4:30: Football Night In America – NBC

Post-game Shows:
Patriots Football Weekly Post-game Show – Marc Bertrand, Paul Perillo, Andy Hart
Real Postgame Show – WEEI

 

All week long the football media has pounded the drum about how the Ravens have the Pats number; you would think Baltimore has won ten straight playoff games against New England from the sounds of things, rather than being one game over .500. The reality is those teams have little to do with the current squads, and there were circumstances that are quit different from today. The 2009 New England team was the last vestige of the 2003-07 era and it was running on fumes. There were a lot of bad attitudes in the locker room that were gone as soon as the season was over, and that team had just lost a huge part of their offense (Wes Welker) the week before at Houston. The 2012 club was a team in transition; that was a rebuilding year in which the club vastly overacieved, and when they met the Ravens they were again suddenly, without time to adjust, without their top offensive playmaker (Rob Gronkowski). Besides the overtly small sample size of two games, today’s rosters for both teams – don’t forget the Ravens no longer have Ray Lewis or Ed Reed – are vastly different.

All that aside, this game really comes down to how well New England’s offensive line can perform against Baltimore’s front seven. Much has been written about the Patriots last few regular season games, where the offense did not play as well as they had earlier in the season. The absence of Dan Connolly cannot be minimized, not because he plays at an All Pro level, but because there is a huge drop off to replacements like Josh Kline. The way to disrupt a pure pocket passer like Tom Brady is with pressure on the interior of the line, collapsing the pocket and making it difficult to step into throws. Baltimore is very capable of doing just that with big, strong physical tackles Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata, but don’t forget this: when the Patriots had their current five man OL in place, they were able to effectively neutralize some very good defensive lines such as Detroit’s and Buffalo’s.

This is not going to be anything at all like the 2012 game against Denver (when the Pats ran the ball 54 times) or the Colts game earlier this season (when Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns); the Patriots won’t be able to push the opposing line out of the way like they did in those games. However, if the Pats can run the ball about 20-25 times for 75-80+ yards – very reachable numbers – that will be enough to keep them from being one dimensional, and preventing the Ravens from teeing off with their pass rush while disregarding the run.

Baltimore Ravens run defense statistics and rankings:
3.6 yards per carry – 3rd best in the NFL
88.3 yards per game – 4th best in the NFL
24.1 rush attempts/game – 5th best in the NFL
4.7 first downs per game – 5th best in the NFL
8 rushing touchdowns – tied for 5th best in the NFL
37% opponent rush play percentage – 3rd lowest in the NFL
24% opponent rushing 1st down % – 4th lowest in the NFL
25.6% opp rushing yards percentage – 2nd lowest in the NFL

Watching the Ravens on film makes me feel that their run defense is not quite as good as their stats would make you believe. I believe that is due to a combination of playing several teams with inferior lines and running backs, and bad teams falling behind and abandoning the run. In the final game of the regular season, the Cleveland Browns had third stringer Connor Shaw at quarterback, and no Josh Gordon at wide receiver against the Ravens. Even though it was obvious the Browns weren’t going to rely on their passing game, Cleveland’s Terrance West ran for 94 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. If the Browns – who had one of the worst running games in the NFL this year, averaging 3.6 yards per carry – could do that against Baltimore in that situation, then is the Ravens’ run D really all that it is being hyped up to be? On the other side of the ball, I think the Baltimore running game can be stopped. They did not look impressive against Jacksonville (Justin Forsett averaged 3.0 yards per carry for 48 yards), Houston (15 rushes for 28 yards, less than two yards per carry) or Pittsburgh (49 yards, less than two yards per carry).

One final note: Bill Belichick game plans to take away an opponent’s strength, and force that team to beat you elsewhere. With that in mind I would expect the Patriots to be focused on covering Steve Smith and Torrey Smith, with a pass rush designed to get to Joe Flacco before their long developing routes are complete. That could conceivably open things up for Forsett and Bernard Pierce in the running game. It could also lead to openings for the third and fourth receiving option; we have seen that multiple times with opposing tight ends (e.g., Coby Fleener against Indy). TE Owen Daniels and former Patriot Kamar Aiken in the slot could become key players if Flacco does not try to force the ball (that’s a big if right there) to the two Smiths.

 

The bottom line is that the Patriots are the better team, and should win. I don’t believe that Will Hill can contain Gronk, who was injured last time the Pats played the Ravens in the post season. The Baltimore front seven is strong enough to force the Pats off the field with a couple of three and outs, and will likely force at least one turnover. However, the Ravens have appeared vulnerable to a no-huddle offense against Cincinnati and San Diego this season; expect to see the Patriots bring the up-tempo hurry-up once again at some point, to their advantage. The Patriots are 7-1 in games with the combination of Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer. In eight games with that offensive line Tom Brady completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,433 yards, 21 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, a passer rating of 103.6, and was sacked just four times. That unit is intact and healthy for this game, which should lead to distinctly better results than what we saw in the first four weeks of the season or week 16 and 17, when they were not together.

Pick • Patriots 23, Ravens 20
Ravens +7
under 48½

 

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